The socio-political mess that is our names, surnames, and our children’s surnames.
This week has been a revelation in my own inbox.
Among the many (so many!) forms of discipline I lack, is the discipline of checking my emails regularly.
Last weekend, I found time to do some end-of-year virtual housekeeping. I call it “end-of-year” to give it the illusion of an annual structure. But really, I get around to clearing my inbox roughly at the same frequency that India gets a new President.
My emails are so disorganized that under a cyber-attack I would likely be the e-equivalent of Jaspal Bhatti asking the hawaldaar raiding his house if the cop can please find his lost sock during the search.
I have actually been rather proud of my overloaded inbox so far. I always considered my 10000+ unread emails a badge of merit – a certificate of how well I was doing at my virtual Vipassana.
This week, however, was a rude awakening. Deep cleaning my inbox introduced me to two important reasons why I can afford not to check emails, but Womaning cannot.
As it turns out, Womaning in India was showcased on the Substack homepage as a featured newsletter in the first week of December – right when we were celebrating Womaning’s first birthday.
Which makes Womaning in India one of 2021’s Featured Publications on Substack.✓
And which also makes me the world’s biggest dunderhead for missing the moment when it was up there.
More importantly, I found – in the overlooked nooks of my inbox – some truly heartfelt and heartwarming emails from you. An opening up of your heart to share your own Womaning stories. A word of appreciation from an ally who is out there spreading the good Womaning word about the newsletter among his friends. And some all-round amazing reading recommendations, as well as future Womaning piece suggestions.
To everyone whose emails I missed: I am truly very sorry. I really thought I was catching all the important emails by reading only the ones Gmail highlighted to me. But I realize now that some important mails tend to fall through the cracks – especially when I temporarily pause all contact with humanity after I hit publish on the pieces I write.
I know better now and will try to do better in the future.
Note: My inbox and my conscience are both clean now – so if you ever wrote to me and I still haven’t written back, please send me your mail again. (Or just be nicer because niceness is the only count on which I have ignored reader emails so far.)
Over to the issue of the week.
Hello ji again,
My name is Mahima Vashisht.
My husband’s name is <husbandname> <husbandsurname>.
My child’s name is <childname> Vashisht <husbandsurname>.
These were conscious calls that my husband and I took after a lot of discussion and deliberation. We expected some serious pushback, on both – me retaining my surname, and our kid having both our surnames.
Surprisingly, the most pushback we have got so far has been one of our parents constantly questioning if our kid’s kid will have four surnames.
To which, my answer is always that maybe we can leave that problem for the kid to solve. Along with climate change and all those other minor problems we are leaving for them to solve.
And as minor as the problem of our names and surnames appears when juxtaposed with Armageddon, I still wanted to take a closer look at it.
Because why not.
So, I spoke this week with some wives and mothers about how they chose their and their children’s surnames (if they got to choose them at all).
Another Note: The first names I use are often pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the women I interview. And I never use surnames to keep caste connotations out of the conversation. However, that is obviously not going to be possible for this piece.
So for the purpose of this piece, I am going with the time-honoured Bihari tradition of evading caste-based violence by using a first name for a surname.
For this piece, I will use the surname “Suman” for all the women and “Prasad” for all the men.
Aajkal ki ladkiyaan and their new-fangled notions
Kritika Suman was always sure that she would not change her surname after marriage. Luckily, everyone in her family and her husband, Rajan Prasad’s family accepted her decision without protest. But Maharashtra has a strange love affair with fathers’ surnames, and as a resident of Mumbai, Kritika was aware of this.
“Even though I did not change my name, I had heard about how ridiculous Maharashtra government officials can be when it comes to naming babies (and even mothers on the babies’ birth certificates!). They want not just the husband’s surname, but also his first name to be the middle name for both – the wife and the child.”
“Even to book an appointment at the hospital, I was supposed to give my full name with my husband’s name as my middle name. So my hospital’s database had my name as Kritika Rajan Suman – a name which matches none of my documents!”
“One of my bosses at work had not changed her surname after marriage and was asked to show her marriage certificate at a leading maternity hospital in Mumbai, in order to prove that she was indeed the mother of her husband’s child – who she had just delivered!”
Well familiar with the insanity she could encounter, Kritika went in prepared not just to give birth, but also for the Battle of the Documents.
“I was prepared for everything. I packed my Marriage Certificate in my Maternity Bag. I told the maternity ward nurse multiple times that I have not changed my surname. We asked them to match spellings with our Aadhar cards and got the birth certificate form checked by my husband before it was sent to Municipal Corporation.”
“We also did not want ‘Rajan’ as our daughter’s middle name which was another battle my father had to fight at the Municipal Corporation office while collecting the birth certificate. The Municipal Corporation actually made him call us on phone in front of them to confirm that we really wanted to make this ‘odd request’.”
And while she finally won the Battle of the Documents, she could not escape without the hospital nurses firing some arrows of good-old societal judgment in her direction.
“The nurses made comments like ‘Aajkal ki ladkiyaan (girls these days)… these girls have stopped following our culture’. I was frankly in too much pain after the birth to pursue the argument with them.”
Will accept any reason except your right to choose your name
Amrita Suman grew up in a Maharashtrian household where a woman changing her surname after marriage is the norm.
“I didn’t think of it as regressive or patriarchal. I simply accepted it as something one does – like driving on the left side of the road! So when I got married, I assumed I will change my surname to my husband’s. However, my husband and I are both big believers in Newton’s first law of motion – we both continue to be in a state of rest until acted upon by an external force. So we decided that an external event would trigger the official change of my surname – maybe the marriage registration, or the need to renew my passport… Both events came and went but the surname change was not really required in the city we were based.”
A few years back, Amrita was blessed with a baby daughter.
“When the time came to file for her birth certificate, I knew it was ‘now or never’ for my own surname change. So, I filled in Amrita Prasad instead of Amrita Suman as the mother’s name on her birth certificate.”
“Truth be told, I felt a strong pain in letting go of my surname. I had had many years of marriage to prepare myself for the change. It was my decision too (if you discount the fact that I was conditioned by society since birth to make me think this was my decision). But I was sadder than I had expected to be.”
“I am a marketing professional. The importance of branding is drilled into our heads. Wasn’t my name my ‘brand’? And I had built it over the years with great care. How could I let it go now with one signature?”
But the deed was done.
“Amrita Prasad was the mother in my child’s birth certificate, not Amrita Suman. The name I had lived with and identified with all my life was not even there on my daughter’s first document. We brought the baby home. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was bitter for having to let go of my identity.”
Meanwhile, Amrita’s husband began the paperwork for changing her name everywhere.
“He quickly realized that changing all my documents was an unnecessary burden for him. We talked about it and decided together that I better remain Amrita Suman for life.”
This began a somewhat comical process of un-changing her surname on the baby’s birth certificate, back to Amrita Suman.
“It involved sitting in the Municipality office for 4-5 hours to get the birth certificate corrected. I must mention the awkward 3 minutes when the officer triple-checked with me that I was reverting to my maiden name, and not vice versa.”
To dodge societal judgment, Amrita even went prepared with a fake cover story for the strange request.
“I wanted to avoid the usual ‘aajkal ki ladkiyaan’ lecture that government officials give in these situations. So I lied that I had to travel with the baby urgently, and had no time to change my name on my passport. I thought it was a terrible excuse, but it seems they are happy to accept any reason other than a woman exercising her agency on her own name. So I was spared the sermon and came back home Amrita Suman once again.”
“Change your name on Facebook to buy peace”
When Preeti Suman and her husband Ayansh Prasad were expecting, they decided together that their child will carry both their surnames.
“There were a number of conversations at home, and it took quite some time for my in-laws to digest it. But they were never too happy about it. We had a son, and that seemed to make it worse for them. The ‘khandaan’ (family name) somehow gets tarnished when the male member does not carry forward the surname. ‘Khandaan ka naam kaise aage badhega?’ (How will the family name be carried forward?) ‘Will his kids be Suman Prasad + his wife’s surname? How will such a long name work?’ All these questions were thrown at us.”
“However, their underlying question was, ‘Why does the name Suman even exist anymore? It should have died the moment Preeti got married into a Prasad family.’”
Equating her marriage to the death of a woman’s identity did not even strike the family elders as something that deserved a second thought.
The sad fact was that it had taken Preeti a good six months to even convince Ayansh that the child should have both their surnames.
“I had a very difficult pregnancy. He saw me go through extreme pain at close quarters. So, towards the end of the pregnancy, he said, ‘The baby deserves your surname more than mine because you are going through so much to bring him/her into this world. I couldn’t have even imagined this pain and you have borne all of it.’”
“When I think about what he said, it makes me wonder, ‘What if I had had a “normal” pregnancy? Would he not have let me add my name to the name of the child I had given birth to because I did not suffer enough by his standards?’”
This was not a new battlefront in the family either.
“About nine months after our wedding, we took my parents-in-law to a trip abroad. My father-in-law started telling me how this would be a great opportunity to apply for a surname-change in my passport. I told him that I did not want to change my name. He was enraged. For the first time since I had known him, he screamed at me. It was scary because he is usually a quiet person.”
“He said, ‘Phir toh shaadi hi nahi karni chahiye thi agar surname khud ka rakhna hai! Agar sab kuch khud ka hi rakhna hai, toh doosre ghar ki bahu bani hi kyu? (If you wanted to retain your surname, you should never have got married in the first place. If you wanted everything of your own, why did you become the daughter-in-law of another family?)’ I was very surprised that he thought I needed to sacrifice my sense of self to become a member of their family. I told him, very calmly, ‘Just because I didn’t change my surname, doesn’t mean I love your son any lesser’.”
“He was so upset that I ‘talked back’ that he stopped speaking to me. He continued the silent treatment for months. Finally, my husband told me, ‘Change your name to ‘Preeti Suman Prasad’ on Facebook so he has his ‘pride’ intact in front of his friends and family on social media. If they see it changed there, they will think you have changed it in your documents as well’.”
Preeti finally gave in and changed her name on Facebook just to buy peace at home.
“Our son’s name is Manav Suman Prasad. My father-in-law knows this but still uses Manav Prasad whenever he has to write his name anywhere. Any parcel my parents-in-law send for me is addressed to Preeti Prasad.”
“Until you change your name, you won’t truly be my son’s wife”
Geeta Suman met Amar Prasad as a prospective groom in an arranged marriage setup.
“When it seemed like we were going ahead with the alliance, I told him in very clear terms that I would not change my name after the marriage. I told him point-blank that I was quite ready to not marry him if this relationship would meant that I lose the right over what my full name would be.”
“Maybe some people think that I was being too adamant. What the heck! It is my name! How do I not get to decide what it is? I have spent my entire life being called by this name and that means something to me! Amar said he did not care what my surname was, and we went ahead and got married.”
However, things began to change soon after the wedding.
“It turned out that once his parents disapproved of it, he did start to care what my surname was. I faced constant taunts from my parents-in-law for not changing my name to ‘Geeta Prasad’. They would keep picking pointless arguments with me, and would then blame my surname as the root cause of all our arguments.”
Geeta and Amar went on to have a daughter while living in Mumbai. When it was time to register her name, Geeta lost the battle to give her both surnames. She settled for at least not giving her ‘Amar’ as a middle name which is the norm in Maharashtra.
“My mother-in-law still thinks that I have not accepted them as a part of my life because I didn’t change my surname. I gave birth to her grandchild but she continues to taunt me with statements like, ‘You are a Suman lady. Until you take Prasad as your surname, you won’t truly be my son’s wife’.”
“For his part, Amar routinely changes my surname to his in railway/bus bookings without telling me. He adds ‘Geeta Prasad’ as his nominee when registering his assets. It is only in flight bookings where I get to keep my surname because the security authorities ask for an ID proof at the airport and I still haven’t changed my name on my documents.”
“Imagine having your identity wiped out completely”
Poring over some old family documents, Sangeeta realized that her grandmother had had two names.
“I discovered that her name was changed when she married my grandfather. Her NAME – not just her surname. So ‘Leena Suman’ became ‘Sunita Prasad’. No trace of her original identity remained. I had never questioned this practice of women changing surnames until the day I discovered this and realized how sinister the whole practice is.”
“I wonder if this tradition began with an arrogant husband or father-in-law deciding to change the bride’s name just because he can. Or did the origin lie in the belief that marriage is a woman’s rebirth, and should therefore mean a whole new identity? Sometimes it was for really banal reasons – like in my grandmother’s case, where it was the fact that there was already a Leena in my grandfather’s family. So her new name was a way to distinguish her from the ‘original’ Leena of her husband’s family.”
The impact of this practice hit Sangeeta hard when her Aunt told her the story about her 50th school reunion.
“Some 65-year-old men from her school had gone around, searching for their old classmates on Facebook. They ended up having a great reunion, but mostly with the other men. Most of the women were missing. My Aunt, who was among the few women they found, told me, ‘They just couldn’t search for many of the girls in our class because who knows what their names are now?’ Imagine having your entire existence wiped clean. Nobody can look you up. That thought disturbed me to the core.”
In August this year, a petition was filed in Delhi High Court by a man. He was estranged from his wife, and their daughter was being raised by his wife alone. Since she was the sole caregiver, the mother of the child went ahead and legally changed the daughter’s surname to her own surname, leaving the father feeling a little left out.
Obviously, instead of trying to be a more involved presence in his daughter’s life, the man thought the best course of action would be to drag the mother of his child to court.
The Delhi HC ruled that every child has the right to use his or her mother’s surname and a father can’t dictate terms, adding that, “The father does not own the daughter to dictate that she should use only his surname. If the minor daughter is happy with her surname, what is your problem?”
Truth be told, I am not 100% sure even now about my husband and my decision to have our child carry both our surnames. Mine is a clear caste marker while my husband’s is a native village marker of a place where the family hasn’t lived for several generations.
The ideal solution – if at all there is one – might be to dispense with both parents’ surnames and give the child a fresh one until they are old enough to choose their own.
At which point, of course, they are free to name themselves Princess Consuela Banana Hammock.
“Show me the rule where it says this”
I spoke to Avantika, who has actually done this. (Not the Princess thing, unfortunately. The neither-parent-surname thing.)
“When I was pregnant and we were deciding baby names, I was very clear that the baby should not carry my husband’s surname (
Option 1). I was doing all the heavy lifting of bringing the baby into the world, so why should the baby carry his surname? I really don’t think that the father’s surname should be used, even he is an equal parent. Even in the case of fathers who shoulder the load more or less equally in the later years, the massive tasks of going through pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and most of the early years’ parenting still fall on the mother.”
Avantika did not like the idea of having her surname as her child’s middle name either.
“I think the mother’s surname as the child’s middle name is just a consolation prize. A feel-good gesture, but nothing substantial. People hardly use their middle name unless required on official documents.”
Even giving the kid her own surname felt to her like perpetuating the same problem.
“Even I carry my father’s surname, not my mother’s who was my primary caregiver. So, with my child, I wanted to stop this practice altogether. We decided to give our child an entirely different last name, chosen by us, and which did not symbolize any religion or caste.” (Option 4, for the win)
Avantika and her husband faced no trouble registering the birth certificate. However, they were supposed to take an international flight soon after the birth of the baby. So her husband went to get the baby’s passport made.
“The passport officer insisted that we should add the father’s surname as the baby’s last name. He refused to accept the surname we had picked. He even insisted that my passport too should be updated with ‘Spouse’s Name’ added (though he never insisted the same for my husband’s passport). My husband came back home and told me what had happened.”
“I was enraged. How could this stranger dictate what we can or cannot name our child? I was only 10 days postpartum but I asked my husband to take me to the Passport office with him the next day. Once I was there, I demanded that the official show me the government document where this rule is written. After a long argument, he admitted that there is no official rule as such, but he was ‘only telling us this for our benefit’. I told him to mind his own business and we got the name we wanted on the passport.”
In conclusion, the law doesn’t say anything about how we name ourselves or our kids. So can the real shady commentators please stand down?
Also, Avantika for President.
A housekeeping announcement, back from our little newsletter
I am told by Team Substack that I now get to use this badge on all the Womaning social media pages. Sharing it here as a general reminder to all of us of how far Womaning has come in this one short year we have had (and a specific reminder to me to keep checking my emails).
Thank you all wonderful humans for this lovely end-of-year gift.
Wishing you all and your loved ones a beautiful, Armageddon-free 2022.
Princess Mahima Banana Hammock
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